NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Rhiannon Held! – Sarah Chorn
Rhiannon Held is the author of Silver and its sequel, Tarnished. In her day job, she works as a professional archaeologist. Held lives near Seattle, Washington. You can learn more about her and her books by visiting her website. The third book in her series, Reflected, was published on February 18, 2014.
When I conceived of my character Silver, from the urban fantasy series of the same name, in a lot of ways she was a reaction to the sometimes troublesome idea of the “kickass UF heroine.” I didn’t even think explicitly about making her disabled, I just wanted to reach out to speak to readers in a different way—not the aspiration of somehow magically being so cool and powerful, but the identification with a character who was struggling and succeeding despite obstacles the reader might recognize. I hope that I’ve succeeded and she does speak to people, even if I’m not dealing with a particular obstacle that an individual reader might.
Silver is a werewolf who was injected with silver nitrate. It removed her ability to shift into wolf form, deadened the muscles where she was injected so she can no longer use that arm, and gave her brain damage so she either sees the werewolf spirit realm or hallucinates—depending on who you ask.
To the werewolves around her, the most profound of all of the physical effects is the inability to shift to wolf form. They view this as being akin to having half your soul cut off, never mind the fact that it makes you weak and vulnerable and unlikely to ever hold a position of leadership. Obviously, lacking a wolf form is not something a reader would ever deal with, but I think there’s something to be said for using a completely strange and unfamiliar situation to make a reader think about familiar ones differently. No one’s probably had to think about a werewolf stuck in human form before, so they can’t fall back on assumptions and clichés, and really have to ask themselves: what would that feel like?
I also made the decision that Silver should have a dead arm to underscore her physical weakness. Kickass UF heroines are often supernaturally or magically stronger than an average, or even highly-trained, human woman. I often hear people talk about how empowering Buffy was for young women, and while I loved the show, I never felt empowered by the title character herself. She had physical strength and fighting prowess handed to her in a way I could never match. Willow, on the other hand, did have things that I could match as a young girl—she studied spells (self defense, martial arts), asked her friends for help, created magical weapons (mace, taser), and used her intelligence to decide which of the former to employ at any given time. That I could imagine doing! Since part of general werewolf mythology is that they are stronger than average humans, I didn’t want Silver, even stuck in human form, to be stronger and faster and roundhouse kickier than the people around her. I wanted her to show how you could use your mind, your allies, your training, your planning, and your weapons and still succeed amazingly well, even with a physical weakness.
Silver’s mental effects were based on the idea of gaslighting, the everyday kind that can be used to make you doubt the validity of your perfectly natural emotional reactions. Not just “No, those lights weren’t flickering, you were imagining it,” but “Why are you crying, that wasn’t upsetting,” or “Why are you angry, that wasn’t offensive,” and in the most basic form: “Can’t you take a joke?” It tries to rob a person of their emotional truths by convincing them that their emotions are wrong or overreactions.
And when characters tell Silver that she’s crazy, that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the books, she has to fight against that, and prove them wrong. In the end, it doesn’t even matter if her perception of the world as part of the werewolf spirit realm is objectively “real” or a product of silver nitrate disrupting the chemistry of her brain—her emotions and thoughts are true, and need to be treated as such.
So I wrote Silver to struggle against all of those things, and be successful by playing to her strengths, rather than finding a magical cure. A few people have told me that they were surprised that Silver wasn’t healed somehow at the end of the first book. I felt that would be missing the point, and losing an opportunity to speak to readers. There’s so much in life that can’t be cured, only worked through. And I hope Silver working through her disabilities and being quite successful does speak to readers out there.